Sometimes events overtake my pace of blogging, as I was already to fire up a post titled “Bostonians, Do Not Let Michelle Rhee Hurt Our Children”, which would have been about the attempt by education ‘reformer’ Michelle Rhee’s Stand for Children to influence the Boston Mayoral election with a $500,000 ‘independent’ expenditure on behalf of candidate John Connolly (who is pro-charter and pro-neighborhood schools–we’ll get to that in a bit). But Connolly had the good sense to realize that a massive outside spending effort on a very contentious issue would doom him, and called on Stand for Children to not spend the money. If he hadn’t shut this down, I gave it about 24 hours before the battle cry of “Boston for Bostonians” was let loose. I can think of few better ways to unite the neighborhoods than an overt massive outside contribution (and good for Consalvo to bring attention to this issue, even if he’s obviously self-interested).
That said, Connolly, despite his claims of the being education candidate, is not good on policy. His support for neighborhood schools is de facto economic segregation (which, like everywhere in the U.S., intersects with race) and could destroy property values in middle class neighborhoods. But it’s the charter schools that really bother me.
I won‘t regale you (again) with the national examples of how charter schools have distorted the data and engaged in various policies to game the numbers because I don’t have to: there are enough examples in Boston. First, we get the selective acceptance of students:
The difference in student populations has only gotten larger. But here’s the kicker: not only do charter schools receive additional funds from the state, their significantly lower special education and and limited English proficient student bodies are cheaper to educate. In other words, for the ‘general population’, the per pupil expenditure is much lower than in charter schools (note: SPED and LEP students are our kids. We educate them. That is what decent societies do. Not open for discussion).
So how do Boston’s charter schools perform? Well, they claim they have much higher test scores and retention rates. But looks can be deceiving (boldface mine):
Boston’s Commonwealth charter schools have significantly weak “promoting power,” that is, the number of seniors is routinely below 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled four years earlier. Looking at it another way, for every five freshmen enrolled in Boston’s charter high schools in the fall of 2008 there were only two seniors: Senior enrollment was 42 percent of freshmen enrollment. In contrast, for every five freshmen enrolled in the Boston Public Schools that fall there were four seniors: Senior enrollment was 81 percent of freshmen enrollment.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently described “dropout factories” as schools where “two out of five of their freshmen are not enrolled at the start of their senior year.” By this standard, all of the Boston charter high schools and middle-high schools are “dropout factories.”
Claims of high performance on the part of some of these schools appear to be the result of significant student attrition. One measure of success used by all BCRS is Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) performance. However, the lauded results represent the performance of a fraction of the entering students who remain in the school’s upper grades. Struggling students – those not making the grade because of academic performance and/or behavioral issues – leave.
The excessively high student attrition rates at these schools are described in the report by The Boston Foundation as “selective attrition” and “selective out-migration of low achievers.” In other words, over the course of time, the majority of students who have “won” the lottery and gained admission to these charter schools leave and for the most part are not replaced by students on the waiting list.
At the same time, a second measure of success claimed by BCRS is that all or most students are accepted to four-year colleges. There is no admission that these claims are based on less than the full complement of enrolled students. For example, the claim by MATCH Charter School that 99 percent of its graduates are accepted to four-year colleges is misleading. In the first six graduating classes, no more than 136 students out of 367 entering students completed the curriculum. At this rate, only 37 percent of students entering have been accepted in four-year colleges as MATCH seniors, a number that is no better than that of most urban high schools, and significantly worse than the Boston Public Schools.
The short version: Boston’s charter schools expel poorly-performing students. In fact, Boston charters suspend students at over a four-fold higher rate. How many days off can middle and lower-income parents take before they lose their jobs? But doing this allows them to game the numbers.
What’s awful is that this preys on the desperation of parents. There are thoe who can’t afford an expensive private school or even a less expensive school and hope that a charter school will provide a similar experience. Maybe, just maybe, if their child could attend a charter school, his performance would improve. But if that child drops out–and there’s a better than even chance of that happening–then he will have to attend a school whose per pupil expenditures are lower because of the same charter school that expelled him.
The cynicism is both breathtaking and cynical. It strains credulity to think that the proponents of charter schools don’t know what they’re doing. In other words, they’re being intentionally dishonest. That, or they’re willing to give up on a lot of kids.
Boston can do better.
Related: Charles Pierce has some interesting thoughts as well.